Obama the invisible
By JOHN PODHORETZ
Last Updated: 10:14 AM, March 16, 2011
Posted: 11:48 PM, March 15, 2011
Where is the president? The world is beset. Moammar Khadafy is moving
relentlessly to crush the Libyan revolt that once promised the overthrow of one
of the world’s most despicable regimes.
So where is the president?
Japan may be on the verge of a disaster that dwarfs any we have yet seen. A
self-governing nation like the United States needs its leader to take full
measure of his position at times of crises when the path forward is no longer
This is not a time for leadership; this is the time for leadership.
So where is Barack Obama?
The moment demands that he rise to the challenge of showing America and the
world that he is taking the reins. How leaders act in times of unanticipated
crisis, in which they do not have a formulated game plan and must instead
navigate in treacherous waters, defines them.
Obama is defining himself in a way that will destroy him.
It is not merely that he isn’t rising to the challenge. He is
avoiding the challenge. He is Bartleby the President. He would prefer
He has access to a microphone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If he tells
the broadcast networks in the middle of the day that he has a major address to
deliver on an unprecedented world situation, they will cancel their programming
And yet, since Friday and a press conference in which he managed to leave the
American position on Libya more muddled than it was before, we have not heard
his voice. Except in a radio address — he talked about education legislation.
And he appeared at a fund-raiser in DC. And sat down with ESPN to reveal his
He cannot go on like this. Niall Ferguson, the very pessimis tic economic his
torian, wrote the other day that the best we can now hope for is that Obama
leaves the country in the same kind of shape that Jimmy Carter left it in.
That doesn’t do Obama justice. Despite how disastrously he has handled the
crises of the past two months, he can still turn his presidency around on a
For Obama to save himself, he should be thinking about the example of an
unlikely Republican predecessor: Richard Nixon.
The multifarious crises the president now faces are eerily similar to the
kinds of calamities that greeted Richard Nixon in his first term from 1969-1972.
Then, as now, the world was on fire. Wars erupted between China and the Soviet
Union, India and Pakistan, even El Salvador and Honduras.
Jordan was nearly taken over from within by the Palestine Liberation
Organization. There were humanitarian disasters in Biafra (the result of civil
war), Bangladesh (due to flooding) and Nicaragua (deadly earthquake).
There was more, much more — including a war he inherited in Vietnam, just as
Obama has the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. You get the point.
Nixon in 1968, unlike Obama 2008, was elected as a minority president with
only 43 percent of the vote. Yet, in 1972, he won what, in some measures, was
the most lopsided election in American history with 61 percent.
Nixon achieved it, in large measure, because he appeared to be a serious man
grappling in deadly earnest with the serious problems presented to him by a
world careening out of control.
He demonstrated high competency when it came to matters on the world stage. He and his team (primarily Henry Kissinger) developed coherent policies and strategies for coping with the world. There was no question, to friend or foe, that he was fully engaged, paying attention, deeply involved.
Nixon was an awful president in many ways, including in some of his
foreign-policy choices. But he left no doubt that foreign policy and America’s
leadership in the world outside its borders was of paramount importance to him.
All this had the effect of elevating Nixon during his time in office, so that
when it came to running against George McGovern in 1972, Nixon seemed like a
Titan and McGovern a pipsqueak.
How Nixon conducted himself in office in times of crises made possible his
triumphant re-election. Right now, how Obama is conducting himself in a time of
crisis is having the opposite effect.
He began his presidency as a potential colossus — but if he doesn’t change,
he will finish it as a pipsqueak. Pipsqueaks don’t win second terms.